Undergraduate Research

We encourage all undergraduates to become involved with faculty-led research. We consider participation in research to be an essential part of studying psychology. It is one thing to understand the scientific method intellectually. It is another to use the scientific method to pose and answer a research question.

If you are a psychology major, understanding how to apply the scientific method to psychological research helps you understand how the principles you learn in class came to be. If you know early on that you want to pursue a career in psychology or psychological research, the sooner you get research experience, the better. Applications to graduate and professional schools that show a solid record of success in research will have an advantage.

There are three ways to become involved in research in the Psychological Sciences Department: through your courses, through faculty research projects, or through your own project.

Take courses with a research component

Every psychology major will take several courses that introduce basic research techniques and analysis. These courses are important (many are requirements!).

  • Getting Started: Your Freshman and Sophomore Years. Research in psychology requires a solid foundation. Complete both introductory courses (PSYC 201, 202). From there, take Statistics (PSYC 301) and then Research Methods (PSYC 302). In 302, pay close attention to experimental design and to APA Style. In some cases, students in 302 are provided with an opportunity to research an area of their own choice. Use that opportunity as a starting point for your own research.
  • Moving Ahead. The next step involves higher-level courses in the natural sciences (PSYC 311, 313, 315, 317) or the social sciences (PSYC 310, 312, 314, 318). As part of the major requirements, you will need to select additional advanced courses (PSYC 350 to 480). The Undergraduate Catalog has a full listing of Psychological Sciences courses. Check the Dynamic Schedule or Open Course List to see what courses are coming up next semester. Select courses that support your areas of interest.
  • Advanced Research Courses (PSYC 410 to 422) are typically taken during the senior year. Choose one that covers your area of interest. Be aware of the prerequisites for these courses, so you are hopefully able to take the Advanced Research Course that best suits your interests.
Get involved with a faculty research project

Our professors are recognized worldwide for excellence in research. They enjoy mentoring undergraduate students and can promote your growth as an apprentice scholar. Many of our labs run on the energy (and labor) undergraduates can contribute. You should not be shy about approaching a professor doing work that interests you and ask them questions. To get involved:

  • Familiarize yourself with the types of research done by individual faculty members.
  • Once you've identified a project that is interesting to you, send the professor a short email introducing yourself and expressing interest in their research. Ask if there are positions available in their lab, and how to apply for them.
  • You may also ask to volunteer in a lab to get some experience before committing to a more formal position, or before starting your own research project.
Do your own project 

By the time you're a Junior, you should begin to develop your own research interests. You can earn credit for your research project through one of the courses listed below. To sign up for these courses, you first need to find a professor who will supervise and evaluate your work. In many cases, you will be doing a project that is part of the faculty member's lab, but may take on some aspect of the project in a more independent fashion. Send an email to a professor who works in an area related to your intended project. Ask if they will serve as your research advisor. If they agree, schedule a meeting so you can go over your plans and register for the course. If your first choice for a research advisor is not able to work with you, ask if they can recommend another professor.

  • PSYC 490, Directed Readings in Psychology (1 to 3 credits). In this course, you will find and read books and articles that focus on your area of interest, and write a paper describing your findings.
  • PSYC 491, Research in Psychology (1 to 3 credits). In this course, "research" includes library research, conceptualization of the construct, experimental design, submission of an Ethics Proposal, collecting data, analyzing data with the appropriate statistical test, and writing up your results using proper APA style.
  • PSYC 498, Internships (1 to 3 credits). Internships are most commonly done during the summer. Students find internship opportunities through networking and research — the Cohen Career Center can help. You can pursue academic credit for an internship experience by completing the Internship for Academic Credit Form before the internship begins. Approval sets into motion a process that ends with your written report, evaluation by a faculty member, and the awarding of credits.
  • PSYC 495 and 496 (Honors). Honors projects are done during the senior year. This is a serious undertaking that involves working closely with a professor on research for two semesters. Near the end of the second semester you will be expected to present your honors thesis to a committee of three faculty members (one from outside Psychological Sciences) and defend your thesis. Permission is required in advance. Details...
Share your results

The full cycle of academic research is not complete until you share your results. There are several ways you can present the results of your research.

The highest form of presentation is to have your results published in a scholarly journal. Occasionally an undergraduate student who has been involved as a member of the research team will be listed as a co-author of a published article. Yes, this can happen! But it takes a lot of work and careful timing. Students can also be named as co-authors on books published by faculty.

You can also present your research in poster form at profesional meetings:  

  • Every February, W&M holds the Undergraduate Science Research Symposium. This is a great way to show your work to the W&M community and get practice creating and showing research posters.
  • The Southeastern Psychological Association (SEPA) holds an annual convention, usually in March, and there are almost always opportunities for undergraduate students to present their research in poster form. In order to present here, you must submit a proposal that will go through a review and approval process. Be sure to start check the proposal deadlines far in advance. The proposal window usually opens in August.
  • The Eastern Psychological Association (EPA) also holds an annual convention where undergraduates can present research, usually in early March. As with SEPA, check for the proposal window far in advance.
Example Student-Faculty Research Collaborations

The Psychological Sciences Department provides a number of ways for students, both graduate and undergraduate, to become involved in faculty-led research. The following examples give some idea of how this collaborative approach to research extends vertically throughout the department.

  • A master's student working with Professor Burk demonstrated that testosterone administration impairs attention, resulting in a published article. Two undergraduate students helped with the data collection and analysis for this research; collectively, the undergraduates served as co-authors on presentations of this work at the Society for Neuroscience conference and the Undergraduate Neuroscience Symposium.
  • Students have worked as members of Professor Galano's Healthy Families Virginia research team. Virtually all of the undergraduates were paid, and a master's student was funded through a stipend. To date, a doctoral dissertation, master's thesis, honors project, and several senior research projects have resulted.
  • Professor Hunt regularly assigns undergraduate students to help her graduate students collect data. The graduate student trains and supervises the undergraduates, and many times the undergraduate is listed as a co-author with the graduate student on a publication. In addition to explaining research-relevant material, the graduate students offer practical advice to the undergraduate students and, in general, teach them about graduate school.
  • Professors Langholtz's and Ball's book Resource-Allocation Behavior brought together several years of research they had conducted that included six journal articles and professional presentations by two undergraduate and three graduate co-researchers and co-authors. An undergraduate Computer Science major developed the software, and an undergraduate student and Professor Ball analyzed subject responses. One graduate student compared behavior to mathematical models; another examined resource-allocation to achieve fixed goals; and another examined broader social issues of resource-allocation.
  • In Professor Pilkington's lab, undergraduate and graduate students work together to study applied and theoretical aspects of close relationships. For example, a Psy.D. student conducted her dissertation on aggression in romantic relationships. Her experiment was based on the Honors thesis of a previous undergraduate student and was conducted with the help of two undergraduate research assistants. An M.A. student conducted his thesis research (the impact of safer sex messages in the media on trust in romantic relationships) based in part on three previous Honors theses. A first-year M.A. student analyzed data from a larger project that involved a Psy.D. student and three independent study undergraduate students.
  • Professor Stevens involves both master's and undergraduate Honors students in work at her Cognitive Neuroscience Lab. These are unique studies that relate to action representation. The result is an integrated and energetic lab that provides a rich learning environment for the independent study researchers.
  • Professor Thrash is currently conducting research on implicit-explicit motive congruence, inspiration and the writing process, and humor production. Approximately 10 undergraduate Psychology majors per semester assist with data collection and data coding. As part of his research on inspiration and writing, Professor Thrash hired several panels of English majors and graduate students from the American Studies program to evaluate technical aspects of participants' writing quality and style. Two manuscripts with graduate students as coauthors are in preparation.
  • Professor Zeman has graduate and undergraduate students working in her lab, examining children's and adolescents' emotional expressivity and psychosocial functioning. Two graduate students (M.A. and Psy.D.) contribute to the research, along with three undergraduate students. All students attend weekly meetings and are involved in data collection in the public school system, data coding and entry, and data analysis. Results from this study will be presented at international conferences in which the students will be coauthors.